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My Philanthropic Journey: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Embrace Failure

Strategic Philanthropy | Civil Society | Dec 17, 2020

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Vidya Shah, Chairperson & CEO, EdelGive Foundation at EDGE 2020. They discuss Rohini’s insights from her philanthropic journey over the years.

Unlike conventional wisdom in philanthropy, my work spans different spaces such as groundwater and sanitation, early learning, social justice and governance, and the arts. At Arghyam we’re looking at water, at EkStep we work on education, and I also have portfolios on Active Citizenship, young men and boys, environmental issues, and how to collaborate on better access to justice.  It may seem like this approach makes me a jack of all trades and master of none. But I’d like to put this in perspective because while these are all different issues, to my mind they focus on the same thing which is the strengthening of the Samaaj. The continuum of the Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar, and the importance of building up the Samaaj so that it can collaborate and help solve its own problems, is the driving force behind my philanthropy. Regardless of what field we are working in, what I look for is ideas, individuals, and institutions that have the integrity, commitment, and passion to solve something that they care about. These are all societal issues, and through my philanthropy, I hope to support the strengthening of communities and the Samaaj to respond to problems and see themselves as an active part of the solution. This is my ideology and I’m able to work across these areas because of India’s thriving civil sector. As philanthropists, we get to support other people doing the work, and there are amazing organisations in this country which I have the privilege of supporting.

How to Strengthen and Support the Social Sector

The civil sector in India is facing a variety of pressures right now, from concerns about fundraising to the reforms that the government is undertaking. Since the new CSR law and differences in ideological beliefs, many rich philanthropists have undertaken initiatives to implement their aims on their own, hiring their own people and operating within their own gate. They may be collaborating with the government, but not necessarily with existing civil society institutions. This is a worrying trend because these civil society organisations have been working on the ground for decades and their experience has helped them understand how problems evolve and how some solutions may give rise to new problems. Unless one has a deep, contextual understanding of the issue, it’s difficult to grapple with the inequities that people face. What philanthropists need to do is to support the people who have that understanding and who have been working in the field for years. For example, at EkStep we are rolling out a huge platform along with the government, but we also made sure to include many civil society organisations in it as well. So even if philanthropists want to implement initiatives within their own organisation, they should make sure to find the people who are already doing good work.

We need to collectively work on making our society strong and that means strengthening its institutions, leadership, and moral base so that we can confidently hold the markets and the state accountable to the common public interest. Society is not homogenous, especially in India, so it’s a tricky task to ensure that societal tensions don’t spill over. Therefore, I think it’s helpful to go back to the basics. We must begin with the younger generation and start having conversations about how to see ourselves as citizens first. How do we see ourselves not just as consumers or subjects of the state, but as active participants in society? The state and the markets have an immense influence on our lives, so how do we take some of that power back for ourselves? We need to understand that we are citizens first, and that we must work to make our society better for everyone, whether that means just doing something within your building, house, neighborhood, city, or for the whole country. Once these layers are understood, it becomes easier to do the work which strengthens the Samaaj. 

The task before civil society and the media now is to make people see that they need to be giving back to society, and the work that they do through their businesses is not enough. 2020 has taught us that we are interconnected, more than ever before, so businesses and wealthy people must start to give forward into areas that they don’t directly get any benefit from. It’s a critical way forward and we need to draw as many people as possible into this, so that they can experience the joy and satisfaction that you get from doing this kind of work. 

For women, this is a bit more complex because many don’t have control over their finances so being able to give is a slightly tricky issue. Personally, I had to battle for my identity because Nandan’s takes up such a large space. I had to work and show that, over time, my approach is complementary and different to his. I was also fortunate enough to put my own money into Infosys, so I became independently wealthy and have more control over my own finances. Not all women necessarily have that, but that should not stop them from feeling like they can give it forward. Families need to understand that women can use their talents, not only in their jobs and home life, but can also work to improve their community. I urge women to confidently make the demand on money to give forward, because it’s another way to contribute to the family and instill important values in the next generation. 

By having these conversations and learning from each other in the sector, over the past 20 years people are beginning to apply both their hearts and minds, along with their pockets. For many philanthropists, the journey of giving may start with either the head or the heart, but the experience is not static and as their learning evolves, they realise that they need both the head and heart to be able to implement systemic changes. This also happens through collaboration, and one of the biggest players that we need to collaborate with is the government. We need to expand our understanding of what that entails because the government does not necessarily mean the Prime Minister’s Office. It could mean working with the local panchayat, ward councillor, or mohalla committee, or it could be any form of a state or a para-state organisation. There are a variety of opportunities to engage with the government and it will help to expand your own work, even if it’s at a very small scale. Today, if you go to your ward councillor and say, “I want to give books and uniforms to one school,” you are already working with the state and the political system. If you begin small, you will quickly understand how that will help you to scale up your work. 

The Challenges for Indian Philanthropy

I think Indian philanthropy needs to take a very hard look at what is actually happening on the ground. Why are people suffering? When we talk about climate change, who will be the most affected? Those who live at the edge of livelihoods, who are most vulnerable and dependent on land and water to survive will be devastated. We must protect our country and its geography against all the shocks that are on their way. The problem is that many business people who do philanthropy are worried about being seen as pro-people and anti-government, and are therefore very careful in their philanthropy. But with the kinds of crises that we know are on their way, we can no longer afford to worry about these things – we must be pro-people and pro-ecosystems that benefit people.

Corporates also need to understand that businesses will not thrive if they don’t realise that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the ecology. If they don’t understand that, they will shy away from the hard questions about pollution, water sustainability, land issues, agriculture, and many more issues. Being pro-people and pro-environment for our country is imperative right now. We can afford to take more risks, even in terms of access to justice. How many people are languishing in prisons without trials because they don’t have easy access to courts and lawyers? Societal issues are intricately linked together and those connections are being woven tighter together as time goes by. We need to understand this and use those insights in our philanthropy. 

I think that civil society in India needs to realise that they were dependent on foreign and multi-lat organisations for funding, and they did not spend enough time and energy to bridge divides between them and Indian funders. Instead of assuming that people won’t fund them, they need to now tell their stories in a way that will help funders understand. So there’s a lot of work that civil society needs to do to reach out to Indians who are becoming wealthier or are already wealthy. We need to galvanise our own super wealthy and wealthy to start openly giving. When we talk about wealth in India, it is often in hushed tones but we should be clear that wealth creation is a good thing because it means that more people are being brought into prosperity. It’s why societies allow it and the state encourages it. But wealth must be used for the benefit of society. If only a few individuals are benefiting from wealth creation, and masses of people are not seeing any benefit from it, then clearly something is wrong. Over the last 20 years, many economists around the world have celebrated billionaires and celebrated wealth, but I think we are seeing a tipping point now. People have understood that while wealth creation is good, the accumulation of so much wealth in so few private hands that are not visibly deploying it for societal interests, pose huge problems. And people are waking up to those problems. Today, the super wealthy need to reflect on how they can ensure that their wealth is useful to people. The time to be shy about it is over – people need to clearly signal how they mean to use their wealth.

Finally, we need to look at retail fundraising. How do Indian civil society organisations tap into this more effectively? While I think we do need to professionalise civil society, the core of the sector is the volunteer energy that people have in them. The desire to do good for its own sake, without transactional results is what motivates us. That’s what we need to see coming up again, so civil society has to learn to tap into that. 

Moving Towards a Digital Civil Society

The pandemic has helped us realise the importance of digital spaces, especially when it comes to creating a more resilient civil society in India. Whether in terms of organisations’ capacity to quickly respond to emerging problems or the capacity to not be dependent on a few funding waves, the sector would benefit from the move to digital. In order for this to happen, we need to build out the capacity building as a sector in philanthropy and civil society. We need to give much more training, tools, and resources to civil society organisations because without financial support they may not be able to do it.

Over the past few years, our teams at EkStep and at the Societal Platform have been thinking about how to use technology to build for inclusion. Although I’m not a techie, I’ve learned to expand my definition of tech – farmers use the plough, Gandhi used the charkha, we moved from bullock carts to cars, these are all examples of technology. Everything is technology, but information technology particularly is double-edged and we know it can be used for good and bad. It amplifies intent, so I think working on the intent and declaring it is very important. We need to constantly make sure that our technology does not lead us away from our intent. So how do we make technology work for society, to serve the Samaaj? That’s why we designed Societal Platform thinking. If we want everyone to have an education, healthcare, access to justice, water, or any other basic necessity, can we use the power of all these emerging technologies to do that instead of trying to capture value at one end of the spectrum?

There are no simple solutions, but I believe the way forward is to create open public digital goods so that everyone can be a part of taking back technology for society. I don’t see how else we can solve these complex societal issues, which is why I urge civil society organisations to bring themselves into the digital age, because the new societal problems are going to be digital age problems. We need a healthy digital civil society to tackle digital age issues on virtual platforms. These are complex issues, but they can be made simpler with the goal that technology must enable inclusion, choice, access, and agency. And we have to design for all these principles, which is what we hope Societal Platform thinking will do. 


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